Short fiction by Scott Thompson
Hooks from the steel legs of grasshopper dug into Sister’s summer tanned arm. Her older brother had placed the fat and grotesque insect on her, leaving her frozen like a trapped animal in the moment before if finds its flight reflex. The black grasshopper looked at her from eyes of reflective black glass mounted on a body the size of a spit out plug of tobacco. Brother laughed while Sister shivered and prayed that the grasshopper would fly. “Get it away,” she whispered, being careful not to startle the insect that appeared to be suspended above her arm, despite its tingling needle grip.
“C’mon, ain’t that bad,” her older brother said before grabbing the grasshopper by its tail that squished inward like rotten fruit. The grasshopper flinched upward, revealing a daffodil colored mask. It opened its wings that were decorated a red the shade of fresh blood. The grasshopper hissed when brother dropped it into a peanut butter jar. Three other black grasshoppers were in the jar and one crawled out and over Brother’s hand. He let the insect rolled into his palm, where he held it tightly by its burnt plastic back. Brother took a five inch thorn from a hawthorn tree and impaled the grasshopper through its body and both wings in a mini-ceremony that reminded Sister of the crucifixion she has heard about in Sunday school. Puss that smelled rancid and sweet popped from the insect’s body before Brother threw it to the ground. He then smiled and raised his hands, spreading his fingers and revealing palms stained like dried vomit. The grasshopper’s barbed legs twisted mechanically. Fast. Then slowing like a toy unwinding as it gave in to fate.
“Gotcherself a devil’s horse.” A voice said from behind Sister. It was Daddy. “Not good for much ‘cept maybe catfish bait.”
“Why’s it called that?” Brother asked.
“Your mama’d tell you it’s cause the Devil rides in on their black backs, bringing the bad of hell with ‘em.” Daddy wiped the back of his rippled and fire scarred hand under his nose. “Just a old wives tale. Don’t know what she’s talking about.”
Sister could smell that Daddy was drinking, something he said he’d stop doing after he’d last been arrested. Maybe he wouldn’t get drunk this time, Sister hoped. Just a drink. He’d promised he’d take it easy next time. But he didn’t, and drank through the sticky August day, and by sunset was sitting on the front porch with a bottle of cheap liquor. Memories.
“Sit down,” Daddy said to Sister, pointing toward the weathered porch floor next to his rocking chair. “You think I’m an old drunk don’t you? Like your mama.”
“Daddy, I don’t–”
He put up his hand and she sat down. The smell of the grasshopper’s bile had lingered in her nose until the smell of his booze laden sweat and rolled cigarettes erased the last. She turned away, denying the odor.
“I ever told you about the war?” He pushed back in the rocking chair and held it with his feet.
“Words cain’t really tell it, but…” Daddy looked at the rolled places where his hand had burned. Pale rivers over his skin. “Water was so thick with bodies you could walk on it.” He eased his chair forward and let out a rusty breath. “Wouldn’t think a ship with so much metal would burn like that. All that fuel I suppose.” His eyes looked across the road toward a man working under the hood of a dented ’41 Ford. “Used to think the ocean was pretty, up till it turned red.” He took a long draw on the bottle.
The screen door opened and Mama looked down at sister. “Go on inside, honey.”
“It’s alright, Mama.” She had never heard her father talk about the war. She had wondered about the scar. His pain. “We’re just talkin’.”
“Don’t care.” Mama let the screen door creak and snap behind her. “Do what I said.”
Sister went inside the dark house, but stayed near the door so she could hear her parents.
“Don’t come out here to ride me, woman. I got enough troubles.”
“What troubles?” Mama asked. “You ain’t got a job. So that ain’t no trouble.” Mama stepped toward the rocking chair. “You don’t do nothing to help raise your kids. Get on up and be useful?”
Daddy put down the bottle of liquor, slowly, fingering the neck, making sure that it didn’t tip over. He pushed up from the chair and pointed toward Mama while his face tightened and his finger fell back into formation with the other fingers in a fist. Mama’s face snapped when he hit her. She fell back, putting one hand against the wall before sliding to the porch floor.
Daddy looked at his hand and collapsed back into the chair. “I’m sorry,” he whispered with no more sorrow than a man who had accidentally killed a butterfly.
“Get outa here, you son of a…” Mama looked through the screen door to see her daughter, and dammed her tears with anger. “We don’t need you ‘round here no more,” she shouted. “Makin’ life harder.” Mama pushed up against the wall to stand. She brushed the creases from her dress. “Don’t cha ever come back.”
“Whatchu sayin’, Mama?” Brother asked. He had been attracted to the negative energy like a dung fly. No one had seen him. “You cain’t make Daddy leave,” he said a tone that broke both of his parents.
“It’s alright, boy,” Daddy said. “Your mama’s right.” Daddy walked to the street. “I ain’t good for nothin’.” He brushed his scarred hand through this hair and walked up the street, away from the house.
“Mama,” Brother said. “You gotta stop him. I need him, Mama.” Brother started to run to his father but Mama grabbed him by his shirt. “You don’t know. I need my Daddy.” He twisted free and ran up the street to his father.
“I told you,” Daddy yelled. “Get on back home.”
“But, Daddy.” Brother gripped his father’s hand and pulled. “I need you to stay.”
“Don’t you see I don’t need you weighing me down, boy?” Daddhy took his other hand and pulled Brother’s fingers away. The weight of the boy fell to road. “Go on.”
Through the screen door, Sister saw a Devil’s horse spread its wings and glide down from the porch roof into the shadowy olive leaves of an azalea bush. She peered through wire to the stop sign at the end of the street and watched her father turn right towards town.
Daddy was gone.
“Gotch yer stuff,” Mama asked?
“In the car,” Brother motioned toward his uncle’s car that was going to take them to their new home forty-five minutes away in River Falls, some miles south of Atlanta. “But, Mama, what if Daddy comes back?”
“It’s been three months. He ain’t coming back.” Mama looked toward the end of the street then back at a jar in Brother’s hand. “You cain’t take those creatures to River Falls,” Mama said. “I heard they don’t have ‘em there, so ain’t no need to bring ‘em there. Go on now, leave ‘em here in Carrollton.”
“That ain’t true,” brother said, tapping the jelly jar with his fingernail, causing one of the Devil’s horses to open its red lined wings and hiss. “I won’t let ‘em go no how.”
“Do what I said and leave ‘em here.”
“We got someone else wantin’ a room, Mama,” sister yelled from the front door of the ramshackle antebellum house mother was renting and then re-renting rooms to boarders. She paid the owner of the hundred year old house $50 per month and then rented out six rooms of the large airy house for $25 each per month. This left her with enough money so she only had to work one job at a nursing home a mile away.
“Tell ‘em we’re full ‘til the weekend,” Mama yelled from a balcony above the foyer of wide pine floors and bead board walls that had once been painted white, but had aged to a foggy gray. “Sorry, didn’t see you standing there. Come back in a few days.” Mama said to the man, who was wearing oversized pants and a week old beard.
Sister pushed the heavy door shut and lifted hard on the dark iron handle until it clicked into place. There was a knock. “I guess he cain’t wait. Go on, I guess.” Mama shrugged. “See what he wants.”
Sister opened the door and saw Daddy. She turned her head sideways. “Is that you?” she asked like a student asking a classroom question reluctantly, and not like a child who had not seen her father in over a year.
“Hey there, baby girl,” Daddy said. He brushed his burned hand through this sweaty hair and gently kicked at the door frame causing a quarter sized flake of paint to fall. “Can I come in?”
She pulled her father into the house with a hug.
“Daddy,” Brother said. He had sensed his father and ran from his room to the balcony. He turned to his mother. “Mama, look. It’s Daddy.”
“Uh huh,” Mama said. She bit her lip and spoke toward the ceiling. “You back for good this time? Like every other time?” She squeezed the railing tight. “Or are you just here for a visit before you get on your way?”
“I’ve been working. Saved up some money,” Daddy said. He put his hand on Sister’s head and looked at her. “I missed you.” He looked up at Brother and said, “I got some Dr. Peppers.” He slung his head back. “On them steps. Go get one while me and your mama talk.”
The next morning Brother and Daddy sat on a log next to a creek behind the old cotton mill. The muddy water stumbled over a small rapid of granite rocks and collected into a two foot deep pool.
“I heard there’s a twenty pound catfish in here,” Brother said, casting the line on a borrowed fishing rod.
“Might be. I saw a man pull a four foot catfish out of the water next to a dam down in Louisiana.” Daddy picked a piece of long grass from the bank.
“So, Daddy.” Brother tightened his line. “Where you been?”
Daddy put the piece of grass in his mouth and chewed for a few seconds. “I’ve been working and trying to get my life back straight.” He spit into the water. “I didn’t want to come home to you kids ‘til thought I could keep it together.”
“You stayin’ this time?” Brother picked his own piece of grass and put it into his mouth. “For good?”
“If you’ll have me.”
“Yeah.” He leaned against Daddy’s shoulder. “We’re glad you’re home.”
After the choir was seated, the preacher rose from his chair behind the pulpit, paused for silence in the room, and said, “We’ve got a new man with us today, but don’t dare call him a guest. His family has been with us for the past year while he was working.” The preacher smiled and Mama forced a reluctant smile.
A lady in the pew behind the family whispered, “There’s jobs here too, you know.”
Daddy turned. “What was that?”
“I’m not talking to you,” the lady said as her husband, a tight faced man with dark eyes and black hair scooted the edge of the pew and returned Daddy’s glare.
Daddy leaned in to the man’s gaze. “We’ll see, fella,” Daddy said before smirking and turning back to the preacher.
“Too bad your wife’s more of a man than you.” Daddy said to the man outside, after the service. He then licked his thumb and wiped a speck of dust from the dark eyed man’s suit jacket.
“Don’t touch me,” the man said as he pushed Daddy’s hand away.
“Did you just hit me?” Daddy asked, backing away from the exiting worshipers who had not yet sensed the tension.
“Stop it,” Mama said, positioning herself between the two men.
“It’s alright ma’am,” the dark eyed man said. “I’m not going to fight here.”
“You picked it, fella,” Daddy said. “Listen here, I don’t like no one judging me, but since I ain’t the type to hit a woman you’ll have to do.”
“I don’t think —“ the dark eyed man’s words were cut short when Daddy’s burned fist snapped like striking snake and thumped the man’s chin hard. The man stumbled, then straightened, and then folded over. “What the…”
“You shouldn’t have.” Daddy grabbed the dark eyed man’s shirt collar. “Don’t matter now,” Daddy said before he pulled the man upright and punched him again. This time in the nose. Blood sprinkled the church lawn’s green grass.
“Look what you’ve done,” Mama yelled. The church members stepped back from the fight and created an open boxing ring. The preacher ran outside and evaluated the incident.
“You gotta go,” the preacher said, wiping his hands down his chest like he was trying to clean them. “Don’t’ come back. This is…this is just too much.”
“I see,” Daddy said. “None of you want me around.” He spun and looked into the shocked eyes of the crowd around him. “I could see it the minute I walked in.” Daddy looked at Mama. “I’ve seen it in you since I came home. I’m not wanted. I get it.”
Brother went to Sister and hugged her. “He’s going to leave again, Sister. Isn’t he.”
“Yeah, you know he is,” she said, tasting a pending eruption of acid in her throat. She gulped and jumped away from a row of boxwoods as a Devil’s horse grasshopper crawled from under the bushes. “Look. Why’s that here?” The black grasshopper opened its red wings and sprung into the air. Sister covered her head, leaned over, and vomited.
Brother gasped. “It’s my fault. I didn’t mean to, Mama,” Brother choked out his words while he wept. “You told me to let ‘em go, but I didn’t. I snuck that jar here with us and they got out.” Brother hugged himself tightly and danced in place. “Them Devil’s horses done brought the evil of Hell with ‘em.”
The preacher turned his back on the family and ushered the crowd of church members away. The dark eyed man stepped back and faded into the crowd. Mama shook her head violently while another Devil’s horse crawled over a dead boxwood branch.
Daddy walked to the street in front of the church. He walked a few feet, saw a Devil’s horse grasshopper and picked it up. He squeezed it in his fist until the grasshopper popped and the vile juices dripped from his fingers. The rancid and sweet smell caused him to gag as he walked away from town.
Daddy was gone.